Photo of the inside of a computer

Older Workers Ride Out Computer Age

The computer revolution, unleashed in the 1970s, has not stopped. Minicomputers replaced mainframes, and IBM introduced its personal computer. Then came the Internet, laptops, robots, iPhones, and increasingly intelligent software that can drive cars and discern music preferences.

Continual technological change has reshaped and regenerated the economy several times over, creating new types of jobs unimaginable a few years earlier. But the past four decades have also been tumultuous for the workers who were either replaced by machines or couldn’t keep up with the evolving demands of their jobs.

This is a pressing issue for the older workers who would benefit from working longer to improve their retirement finances. An erosion in their physical stamina or mental agility conceivably makes them more vulnerable to losing out to progress. And it can be difficult for people who have invested years in a job to train for and find new employment.

But a new study of labor force trends by the Center for Retirement Research finds this has not been the case. The computer age has had about the same impact on workers over age 55 as it has had on the labor force overall.

Two factors have proved essential to whether people – whatever their age – have had job security in this period of change: whether the work is routine and whether it requires a college education.

Since the 1970s, job options have narrowed for many workers who did not attend college, because computers have been especially good at rapidly and tirelessly performing the routine tasks this group’s work often entails. Examples are the computerized financial transactions that replaced back-office workers who entered the data manually and the robots inserted into assembly lines. The more routine a worker’s job, the more vulnerable he is to being replaced by a machine.

The upshot is that this segment of the labor force is shrinking: roughly a third of U.S. workers hold routine jobs currently, down from more than half in 1979. Nevertheless, the magnitude of this decline has been roughly the same for workers over 50 as for the labor force overall, according to the study, which was conducted for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

In contrast, computerization has not affected the demand for non-routine work that is physical in nature, such as construction and food preparation. These jobs typically do not require a college education either, but it has been virtually impossible to program computers to do non-repetitive work. “The rules governing our innate abilities are a mystery,” and this has protected jobs that emphasize uniquely human abilities, the researchers said.Learn More

Photo of an automotive production line.

Workers, Machines and Constant Change

Anyone who drives on the nation’s toll roads has used a job-eliminating device: electronic tollgates.

Unemployment due to new technologies – and workers’ resistance to them – are as old as the industrial revolution. In the early 1900s, glassblowers were replaced by mechanized bottle makers. Today, autoworkers are no longer necessary to bolt car parts to carriages – robots do it with speed and precision. Toll takers are the latest disappearing breed.

Workers who lose their jobs to progress face painful transitions, and pessimists throughout history have warned about technologies increasingly rendering human effort obsolete. Indeed, jobs can seem to vanish overnight after an entire industry or occupation adopts a laborsaving machine, presenting displaced individuals with difficult choices. They must either invest in a new skill or move into a low-skill, lower-paying job.

But in the long arc of history, technology is continually creating new jobs to replace the old ones.

“The cycle of job destruction and creation has produced a labor force where, over the long run, workers have generally found jobs – albeit jobs that largely did not exist 100 years ago,” concludes the Center for Retirement Research in the first of three reports on technology’s impact on older workers for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

The changing nature of work encourages new forms of growth by expanding the economic pie.  For example, about a third of U.S. workers used to be on the farm before being largely replaced by agricultural machinery like combines and threshers, the report said. But during and after World War II, new technologies adopted by industry supplied manufacturing and office jobs to the farmers who had migrated to the cities to work. Wages rose and the economy grew rapidly during this period of unprecedented abundance.

Another way that technology helps the economy is by making goods cheaper to produce and buy, freeing up demand for other products. For example, Americans spend 15 percent of their budgets on food – less than half of what they spent in 1900 before farms became fully mechanized. More money for cell phones. …Learn More

Oldest Women, Often Poor, Need a Hand

In this video, Elena Chavez Quezada introduces two working women in her family who didn’t get a fair shot at a comfortable retirement.

Her mother-in-law, a single mother and immigrant from the Dominican Republic, pieced together a living for herself, her parents, and her children. She never had a 401(k) or owned a house. Each time she built up a little savings, an emergency depleted it. Now in her 70s, she is supported by her son and Quezada.

Quezada’s aunt possessed the personality of a chief executive but worked as a housekeeper and sold snow cones and hot dogs at her husband’s stand in Albuquerque. After his death, she worked well into her 90s as a receptionist for a hair salon.

The goal for retired women like them should be “to age comfortably and with dignity,” said Quezada, a senior director for the San Francisco Foundation, which supports communities in the Bay area.

That’s very difficult for many older women to do. They have less wealth, and although their poverty rate has declined, women – many of them widows – still make up the vast majority of poor people over 80. This is rooted in part in their years as working women, when they earned less. Women are also the majority of single parents raising their families on a single paycheck.

A lack of a retirement plan is a common problem. More than half of the women employed full-time or part-time in the private sector are not saving in a retirement plan at any given time. …Learn More

Unbalanced scales

Social Security Eases Racial Disparities

Social Security is a major source of income for most retirees. It is even more important to blacks and Hispanics in a nation that is becoming increasingly diverse.

Social Security is helping to even out the racial and ethnic inequities in income and wealth that exist in the working population and continue in old age, according to a study by the Center for Retirement Research for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

The researchers estimate how much Social Security reduces this inequality by comparing retirement wealth for white, black, and Hispanic-Americans.

Wealth is defined broadly to include obvious things like home equity and financial assets such as 401(k) retirement accounts, certificates of deposit, and money market accounts. In addition, the researchers converted the income that workers get from Social Security and defined benefit pensions into wealth by estimating the total value today of their future benefit checks.

The estimates of wealth, when Social Security is excluded, reveal enormous disparities. The typical white worker in his early- to mid-50s can expect to have about $177,000 in non-Social Security wealth in retirement, compared with just $24,000 for blacks – about a 7 to 1 ratio. Hispanics have $35,000 – or a 5 to 1 ratio.

These ratios improve dramatically, dropping to roughly 2 to 1 when Social Security is added in. The white worker has $378,000 in total wealth, compared with $173,000 for blacks and $186,000 for Hispanics.

Social Security’s progressive benefit formula reduces retirement inequality by replacing more of the income of lower-paid workers. The program also provides nearly universal coverage, whereas many workers do not have access to retirement plans at work. These features help black and Hispanic workers, who tend to have lower incomes and are also less likely to have retirement plans.

“Social Security is the most equal form of retirement wealth and the most important source for most minority households,” the researchers conclude. …Learn More

More Retirees Today Have a Mortgage

In one significant way, retirement is materially different than it used to be: far more retirees are still trying to pay off their houses.

Bar graph showing the number of retirees with mortgagesThirty years ago, just one of every four homeowners in their late 60s to late 70s still had a mortgage – today, nearly half do. Once people hit 80, mortgages used to be extremely rare – only 3 percent had them. Today, it’s one in four, Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies recently reported.

Retiree’s financial condition depends on much more than how much they spend on housing – in particular the size of their retirement savings accounts and Social Security checks. But rent or a mortgage payment is typically the largest item in the monthly budget. Being free of both can be a significant boost to one’s standard of living in retirement.

Jennifer Molinsky, a senior research associate at Harvard’s housing center, described several developments over the past three decades that may explain the dramatic increase in the share of retirees with mortgages.

First, she said, Americans today “seem to have less aversion to debt” than the generation that grew up after the Great Depression and was instilled with frugality. Although consumer debt levels always ebb and flow with the economy’s cycles, total debt as a percentage of disposable income is significantly higher today than it was in the 1990s. The 1986 tax reform act also made mortgages a more attractive form of debt to hold. The reform eliminated the income tax deductions for interest on credit cards and other types of consumer debt, with one exception: mortgage interest.

Having a mortgage isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Mortgage rates have fallen dramatically in recent decades. Many retirees who are still making monthly mortgage payments were able to reduce the payments by refinancing old, partially paid off mortgages into new 30-year loans with lower interest rates.

But another factor that may have pushed up the share of retirees with mortgages has been the long-term run-up in house prices, relative to earnings, which makes it increasingly difficult to pay off a house before retiring. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, house prices were about three times the typical household’s earnings, according to the housing center. Today, prices are more than four times earnings. …Learn More

Silhouettes of houses in a row

Boomers at 80: Housing Issues to Grow

The baby boom generation is continuing to work its way up the age ladder. The number of Americans over 80 will more than double to nearly 18 million over the next two decades.

And that’s partly because baby boomers are healthier and are living longer – they are also enjoying more of their retirement years free of disability than previous generations.  But unfortunately, boomers can’t avoid the inevitability of their growing vulnerabilities and the impact this will have on their day-to-day lives. A new report by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies makes some sobering predictions about the issues the oldest retirees can expect to face in the future, from widening income inequality to more people living alone and in isolation.

The findings, taken together, point to a range of potential trouble spots revolving around housing our aging population.

  • As people get old, their spouses die, their bank accounts dwindle, and their rents keep rising. For these and other reasons, housing creates more of a cost burden at 80 than at 65. The Harvard housing center defines someone as cost-burdened if they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Today, nearly 60 percent of households over 80 fit this definition, and their absolute numbers will increase as more baby boomers reach that age. One place the financial strain shows up is food budgets: retirees who spend disproportionate amounts on housing spend half as much on food as people whose housing costs are under control. …
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Abstract line chart

People Tap IRAs After the Penalty Ends

Workers are apparently very eager to get their hands on the money in their retirement savings plans.

The evidence is the spike in withdrawals from IRA accounts that occurs soon after people turn 59½, the age at which the IRS’ 10 percent penalty on early withdrawals vanishes and is no longer a deterrent, according to a research study.

Average annual withdrawals from IRA accounts surge by about $1,965 to $3,540 – an 80 percent increase – after people cross the age 59½ threshold, according to the study, which was conducted for NBER’s Retirement Research Center by researchers at Stanford University, the University of Chicago, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

Early withdrawals from tax-deferred retirement accounts – IRAs and 401(k)s – usually are not for frivolous reasons. This money tends to be tapped to ease financial hardships, such as unemployment, a disability, or a large, unexpected medical expense. But when older workers withdraw retirement funds – even for important matters – they may be chipping away at their financial security in old age. Withdrawals by high-income workers, on the other hand, will likely have little impact on their security.

The researchers analyzed taxpayer data from the IRS, which requires withdrawals to be reported at tax time. They compared withdrawals by people in the dataset for the two years before they turned 59½ with their withdrawals between 59½ and 60½.

While the penalty was in place, daily withdrawals were largely flat. But soon after people crossed the age 59½ threshold, withdrawals spiked before declining “to a new higher level than that of prior ages,” the researchers found. …Learn More